Until the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, Ireland, Scotland and England were Roman Catholic. But while England and Scotland adopted the new Protestant religion, the Irish remained resolutely Catholic. Even within the Protestant church divisions emerged. In Scotland many rejected the Established (Anglican) Church, which they felt had not moved far enough away from Catholicism, and favoured the emerging Presbyterian faith, which would eventually become the Established Church of Scotland.

Protestant divisions

The religious divides of the 17th and 18th centuries in Ireland were not just between Catholic and Protestant, as is often assumed. The majority of lowland Scots who joined the Hamilton/Montgomery private plantation from 1606 were sympathetic to the Presbyterian faith. Like Catholics, they too would suffer persecution from the Established (Church of Ireland) Church.

Political struggle

In Scotland the growing conflict between Presbyterian and Anglican become embroiled in the power struggle between England and Scotland and was exacerbated by Charles 1’s dislike of Presbyterians. Inevitably, politics and religion became intertwined. Ulster-Scots Presbyterians, like their counterparts in Scotland, were seen as a threat by the English establishment and, as a result, suffered centuries of persecution.

Class divide

There was a difference in class and power too. While Presbyterians largely belonged to the poorer classes, those of influence and wealth tended to belong to the Church of Ireland. Even so, there were members of the leading families, such as the Hamilton’s, who were Presbyterian and many ordinary Ulster-Scots who were Church of Ireland.

Anti-Catholic discrimination

The native Irish, including the Gaelic chieftains and descendants of the great Anglo-Norman families, remained Roman Catholic and this, given their resistance to England’s claims on their territory, ensured a continuing discrimination against Catholics in Ireland. Protestants feared the return of Catholicism, which remained the religion of England’s great rivals, France and Spain, who viewed Catholic Ireland as a potential backdoor into England.

Uneasy compromise

In the early years of the Hamilton/Montgomery Plantation, there was an uneasy compromise in the churches of North Down and the Ards. While most of the ministers were Church of Ireland, many congregations were largely Presbyterian and both Presbyterian and Church of Ireland worshippers would share the same services. A few ministers, however, such as Robert Blair, were Presbyterian. He was brought to Bangor Abbey by Sir James Hamilton and ordained in 1623. Like his fellow Presbyterian ministers he served in parishes of the Church of Ireland, while at the same refusing to use the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, to which Presbyterians were opposed.

Eagle Wing

For a while this situation was allowed to continue, due to a shortage of ministers and the need for stability but the situation began to deteriorate in the 1630s, when Presbyterian ministers were deposed from their churches by the Church of Ireland bishops. It was this kind of persecution that saw 140 Presbyterians set sail on the ill-fated Eagle Wing from Groomsport to America in 1636.

The Black Oath

Thomas Wentworth, Lord Deputy of Ireland, decided to bring in religious conformity in Ulster with the introduction of what became known as the ‘Black Oath’ in 1639. Imposed on all Scots in Ulster over the age of 16, the oath demanded that they reject the Scottish National Covenant which opposed Charles 1’s restrictions on the Church of Scotland. Some Presbyterians even returned to Scotland to avoid signing the declaration.

First Presbytery

Irish Presbyterians gained some legitimacy when General Munro was sent to Ulster at the head of a Scottish army to put down the Irish Rebellion of 1641. For a brief period, Presbyterians had military muscle behind them, and this army was able to form the first Presbytery (a group of church elders who govern the local church) in Ulster in 1642. But Presbyterians would continue to be seen as a threat to the established order in Ulster for many decades to come.


The Test Act of 1704 brought more discrimination against both Presbyterians and Catholics. Primarily designed to suppress Catholicism, it also banned Presbyterians from holding public office if they did not take communion in the Church of Ireland. Alongside mistreatment by greedy landlords and worsening economic conditions these measures led to a total of over 250,000 Ulster-Scots leaving for a new life in America.


Javascript is required to view this map.

Image Gallery

Coming from Donaghadee on the coastal road (Whitechurch Road) turn right at Dunover Road. The cemetery is about a mile down on your right.
Off Church Street, in Portaferry’s Conservation Area.
In Portaferry’s Conservation Area, at the junction of Steel Dickson Avenue and Meeting House Street.
Enter through Portaferry Tourist and information Centre in the Stables Building in Castle Street.
Follow the A22 to Balloo and take the Craigarusky Road, which is on the left if travelling from Comber. Around 150 metres from the turn you will see the church and Anderson Hall on the left and the car park and new hall on the right.
On top of Church Hill at the north end of Killinchy village with views over Strangford Lough.
At the junction of High Street and Shore Road and Church Road.


Subscribe to RSS - Religion